James Feaste (AKA James Moore AKA Captain Thomas Harman AKA Thomas Feaste Moore AKA Thomas Maitland AKA Thomas Herbert AKA Theodore Eugene Feaste) was a man with a silver tongue and an extraordinary set of skills for weaving identities and stories to suit his purposes. He was certainly one of the most sought-after smugglers around the Whitstable area in the early 1800s.
To understand his complex life we need to start with his capture and the charges brought against him. In this way we can construct some sort of persona from his many confusing identities and activities.
On Tuesday 31st December 1811, the Kentish Gazette reported that:
“On Sunday evening last, a man of the name of James Feaste, was taken into custody in this city (Canterbury) on a charge of being concerned in aiding and assisting French prisoners and other foreigners to escape from this country.”
The newspaper report went on to describe how Feaste had come to the attention of the Government for some months and agents were actively searching for him.
The elusive Pimpernel
The search for this Scarlet Pimpernel of Whitstable was no simple matter. Very few people knew the identity of Feaste or much about him. He was elusive; a man who could devise all sorts of imaginative personal histories and well-connected to powerful friends in high places. His skills at organising escapes were legendary. He operated a sophisticated nationwide network of riders, seamen, inn-keepers, farmers and other assorted associates who had the means to help French prisoners-of-war disappear.
In the newspaper account we hear that the Government appointed Mr Mantell (more correctly, Sir Thomas Mantell) to apprehend Feaste. It was a clever appointment and charge.
Sir Thomas was one of the few people who actually knew the smuggler well enough to track him, arrest him, then dig below the masquerade of stories to get to the truth. Indeed, it appears that Sir Thomas Mantell had known Feaste all his life. He was a familiar face to Sir Thomas who was Mayor of Dover and the Agent of the Transport Board for the Exchange of Prisoners.
These two positions gave Sir Thomas intimate knowledge and open access to information regarding Feaste’s past activities. He was one of the few people who knew the areas that Feaste operated in (many parts of North Kent were remote and alien to the authorities in London). His Office on the Transport Board ensured he knew the inner workings of managing prisoners of war, including records of escapes.
Putting together a profile of activities
In some ways, Sir Thomas Mantell was a “criminal profiler” for his age.
He pieced together an activity report that left no doubt about Feaste’s operations. Sir Thomas described how the French prisoners were approached, terms agreed, an escape plan formulated, and the organisation and manner of escape – involving horses, chaises, boats with sails, oars, charts, and provisions.
His report included intimate personal details and an inside portrayal of how this ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ worked:
James Feaste always appeared to have plenty of money and usually charged £100 for every four prisoners. He would meet the prisoners at a distance outside their place of confinement after dark. They would travel all night and if everything went well, be out of the country within two days.
Oddly, Sir Thomas did not know of the regular escape route through Whitstable, but he was well aware of the assistance given by Feaste to more wealthy prisoners.
James Feaste was apparently fluent in French but never used the language in the presence of Englishmen. He was meticulous in his planning and business arrangements and kept a complete account of the depots and parole places in England. He had listed all the important prisoners around the country with a note of their rank.
His attention to detail was to be admired. He usually made it a rule to get letters of recommendation from the imprisoned officers whose escapes he had safely negotiated and built up relationships and confidences among the influential prisoners in England and Scotland.
But if Feaste was a meticulous escape organiser, Sir Thomas Mantell was a persistent resourceful pursuer.
Mantell first got an indication of Feaste’s possible whereabouts when he discovered the ‘Two Sisters’ at Dover with the name of the vessel painted out. This was one of the escape boats. But no matter how hard he tried Sir Thomas was always several steps behind Feaste. He stayed with the task throughout October and November of 1811 and then as the last days of December were playing out, Feaste sailed into Herne Bay with a crew of five mariners. His time was running out.
On Friday 27th James Feaste left Dunkirk with a cargo of silks and contraband spirits. In the afternoon his vessel was captured at the back of Goodwin Sands and taken back to Dover.
Feaste needed to go on a charm offensive. He showed his arresting officers important letters addressed to several Ministers of State and said that he had been appointed by the Admiralty to obtain information on the state of the enemy’s preparations for war. To some degree, this seems to have worked and he was given every consideration by the officers.
By the time Sir Thomas Mantell was told about the arrest on the Saturday morning, Feast had slipped away. He had been courteously held at the ‘City of London’ inn but left at 6.30pm the night before using the Mail Coach bound for London.
Feaste would have succeeded in another of his daring vanishing acts if it had not been for one foolish mistake. For some unknown reason he decided to break his journey at Canterbury at 9.00 p.m. on Saturday night. It might be that he was trying to get to Whitstable to escape or to see his wife, Elizabeth, who may have been living around that area.
While waiting at the Coach Office on the Sunday evening, he was recognised by John Abbot, a brewer of St Dunstans Street and a local court magistrate. Feaste realised how close the authorities were. He instructed the coachman to call for him at the King’s Arms Public House in St. Peters Street but after ordering a drink and before he could take a sip, James was re-arrested.
A very suspect decision.
Charging and detaining the prisoner should have been straightforward but the Mayor of Canterbury decided to send Feaste up to London to Bow Street for trial.
Wallace Harvey, a local historian on Whitstable maintains that this was a puzzling decision. He speculates that the Mayor of Canterbury realized he had something too hot to hold, and it was also said that he, too, was deeply involved in the smuggling business.
The charges against Feaste were also designed to hide a secret.
James admitted to aiding and assisting French prisoners-of-war but he argued that it was to gain favour with the French government and more easily obtain information for his own country.
This would have been a big enough charge but with the possibility of a leniency clause and reduced sentence because he was acting as a spy for his country. However, there was something else worrying the authorities. It related to a successful escape that had taken place the previous August when James had supposedly taken a watch and £18 from one of the most important Frenchmen captured during the French wars.
James Feaste probably didn’t realise the influence and power of this particular French prisoner-of-war nor the acute embarrassment it would cause the English if it ever became public – even during a time when the country was at war with France.
In order to conceal the potentially embarrassing situation Feaste faced a more generic charge of ‘Robbing the prisoners of their property whenever they were in his power and the opportunity offered itself’. Under such a generic charge no one need be named. It was a blanket charge that a compromised government could hide behind.
There is something else that is odd about the charge. It is utterly out of character for a man like Feaste.
James Feaste was a charming and successful smuggler. He was meticulous in his planning, intelligent, and fluent in French. He had a clever mind capable of influencing powerful people and was charismatic. He always had plenty of money. Yet the charge paints him as a petty criminal – an opportunist, a chancer.
The last we hear of James Feaste appears in the Kentish Gazette in January 1812. The newspaper printed a small statement:
‘James Feaste, who was conveyed from this City to Bow-street, as stated in our last (report), has been put on board a man of war, under the Smuggling Act, and is to be sent to serve on a foreign station. His statement that he was employed by government, turned out to be gross fabrication.’
And so James Feaste (AKA James Moore AKA Captain Thomas Harman AKA Thomas Feaste Moore AKA Thomas Maitland AKA Thomas Herbert AKA Theodore Eugene Feaste) sails away to war bound for obscurity.
Or does he? Perhaps he struck a deal and this final newspaper report was another camouflage, part of the most important escape Feaste would ever devise.
In the second part of the ‘Pimpernel of Whitstable’ we look at how Feaste was probably still operating in Kelso, Scotland.
Kentish Gazette (various issues)
Wallace Harvey, Whitstable and the French Prisoners of War Published by Emprint